03 June 2008

Are you a healthy blogger?

Is it the lure of anonymity? The voyeuristic thrill? Blogging has become a part of many people's daily lives, and many experts fear this new habit is far from healthy.


Some say it’s the lure of anonymity, others cite the voyeuristic thrill reading a blog diary of a stranger's life. But Dr Helgo Schomer (registered psychologist and UCT academic) believes blogging may have far more sinister implications.

"There are many useful aspects to the internet, but unless you have disciplined constraint, the danger of addiction is very real and before long you will be living in an artificial shell of a life," he warns.

On the other hand, Ramon Thomas (Managing Director of NETucation, an online behaviour research organisation in South Africa), says that if you are disciplined and responsible, blogging can actually be therapeutic.

What makes blogging so attractive?
According to Thomas, one of the primary reasons people enjoy blogging so much is because "people have an inherent desire to express themselves. It gives the author complete freedom to blog about anything from what cereal you ate this morning to campaigning for the release of political prisoners across Africa. The fact that it is an open medium makes more transparent than any publishing medium in the history of the world."

He adds that he believes bloggers also enjoy the fact they're not confined by the same rules as mainstream media.

Thomas is a blogger; in fact he has numerous blogs on which he blogs about various topics such as the psychological impact of technology, dating in the 21st century and personal development for South Africans and another one is about Credo Mutwa, a zulu sangoma who he claims is a national treasure that most people don't even know about. But he agrees that when it comes to sharing personal information online, even a little can be too much.

Blogging vs. social status
He refers to a recent study which he says "confirms blogging helps you expand your social life." And while he agrees with this, he also advocates face-to-face communication before forming any lasting relationships.

So it's gone from being an outlet for self-expression to lifting your mood. When you are in a remote part of the world you can tell your story and allow interested people to find you and interact with you. But I do suggest that people to meet face to face, as soon as possible and don't get into a online relationship, which raises expectations only to disappoint because of that elusive element in relationships called 'chemistry'. You can never get to know people as quickly as when you meet and socialise with them in-person."

This ties in with what many experts have already noted - people are becoming more and more withdrawn into the world of blogging and online communication and are engaging less and less in real-world living. But it appears their concern is falling on deaf – or otherwise occupied – ears.

Schomer says one primary reason he believes blogging is so popular is because many people are lonely and cling on to this form of communication as a vital way of connecting with others. The fatal flaw in this grand plan, he says, is that you're not really connecting at all.

'Blogs are altering our social behaviour'
"When people still wrote diaries, they would not let anyone see it; they would write their most private, intimate thoughts in it and hide it away. But now it's being put out there for the world to read.

"If you had sex last night, would you tell the man at the bus stop? No, but people do write about it on their blogs, under the veil of anonymity. This breaches the inner core we usually share with only our most intimate partners and altering our social behaviour," he says.

And so it happens that as our social behaviour becomes more adapted to 'speaking' to 'friends' through a computer rather than face to face, we are also beginning to lose many of our social skills.

But how serious can the situation really be, considering blogs and blogging is not a pastime that's been around for long? According to Schomer, the situation is actually rather dire.

Living a life of pretend
"I have some young patients I am treating for internet addiction and I cannot look into their eyes or hold a conversation with them. You can see they can't wait to escape back to the fantasy world they have created because they can't deal with the complexities of the real world."

These children, he says, can spend up to 10 hours a day online. And while this is clearly having an affect on their social skills, Schomer points out that it's also physically unhealthy to be hunched over a computer all day and not be running and playing outside. But children are not the only culprits.

"These people are living in an artificial shell of a life, which is indicative of a fragmented society which is overloaded, threatening and frightening – and so they use the internet as an avenue of escape," he explains.

A society of voyeurs
However, as Thomas points out, blogging is not all bad, and for many people, it's actually incredibly therapeutic. However, he says, it's also important that you know how to protect yourself online, because unlike real life, you never know who is watching.

"I believe people are sharing information on blogs wilfully - they understand to a large extent the consequences. It is more in the realm of social networks that they do not understand the risk of the vastly increased amount of personal information being exposed to the world," says Thomas.

Yet it's this sharing of personal information which concerns Schomer the most, because even though a socially withdrawn person might not be able to live in the real world, they are living in and interacting with others who may not be who they say they are and become what he terms a 'side-lined consumer' of one's own life.

"Voyeurs thrive online; they can be consumers but not participants and have an almost unlimited access to people's lives, or at least the lives which are being portrayed which are usually more of a warped one-sided view," says Schomer.

"Blogs are perfect for shy and introverted people who can still pretend they have real relationships with anonymous 'friends' online, but these are no more real than comic strips and they are vulnerable to abuse.

"If you meet a person face-to-face you can judge them by the intonation of their voice, their mannerisms and if you feel uncomfortable you can leave, but on the internet you cannot tell what a person is like," he says.

Advice for safe blogging
Alas it is not all doom and gloom for the dedicated blogger, for although blogging can indeed have a more sinister side to it, if done responsibly as Thomas suggests, it can be a good creative outlet.

So how would one go about ensuring their blog does not turn into a daily diary of their lives for all to scrutinise which consumes your every waking thought? Thomas has some suggestions:

This should be easy if you know yourself. If you are aware about things you are passionate about and have hobbies, these often make the perfect topics for blogging. And if you don't, the chances are you are overworked, in which case blogging could help you find your voice."

Sources: Dr Helgo Schomer, registered psychologist and UCT academic; Ramon Thomas, Managing Director of NETucation, an online behaviour research organisation in South Africa.

(Amy Henderson,, May 2008)

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